Five presuppositions social workers need to rethink

Social work leaders are charged with communicating and reinforcing central components of professional identity – notably (1) the professional values and ethics base, and (2) core beliefs and presuppositions concerning social reality and how to make change consonant with social work values and ethics.

As the U.S. descends into a seemingly permanent state of division, violence, worker oppression, and scapegoating of marginalized populations, I would contend that the social work values base is more valid than ever, and indeed is deserving of fierce defense and promotion by professional leaders.  At once, however, several central presuppositions about contemporary socio-political reality are increasingly invalid and call for careful reexamination.  Effective social work leadership and advocacy in the future will rely heavily on leaders’ and advocates’ ability to apply critical thinking to, and to an important degree reinvent, prevailing but largely erroneous presuppositions. 

The presuppositions discussed and offered for “reinvention” include:

  1. Progress toward social justice is relatively steady and inevitable. A utopian dream of the Progressive Era in which the profession of social work was born, and reinforced throughout a good part of the twentieth century, progress toward justice is clearly not assured. Regression is in the driver’s seat today.
  2. Programmatic stability is normative and assured. Public programs that actually address human needs and suffering – suffering more often than not caused by oppressive socio-economic structures and systems – have been in the crosshairs of so-called political conservatives for decades; their aim is to dismantle what’s left of the American “welfare state, ” such as it is.
  3. Politics and policy-making is a rational process, and power in that process is plural and shared. The vast majority of voting-age Americans, however generally disengaged from politics they may be, know better, and every honest poll proves it. Ordinary citizens know that policy making is meant not to solve their problems, but to serve the powerful, whose power only becomes more concentrated over time.
  4. Petitionary policy incrementalism is pivotal to social advance. A kind of corollary to #3 above, the notion that social workers can gradually build toward social betterment through winning the ear of sympathetic policy makers who can be convinced to make a policy tweak here and there is simply wrong, belied mountains of real-world experience.
  5. Professional respectability is earned by correcting systemic/structural flaws through presenting policy makers with the results of carefully conducted research. The unfortunate contemporary reality is that the rigorous search for truth and the presentation of “evidence” has very little to do with gaining respect and advancing professional status. Professionals are accepted when, and only when, they accept “the system” and aid in its reproduction.

How, then, to “rethink” these faulty presuppositions? What presuppositions should social work leaders and advocates embrace? I hope to make a start, at least, on answering this challenging question over the next several blog entries.

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